Rising Above Racism and Giving Back: Hank Aaron’s Life After Becoming Baseball's Home Run King
Hall of Famer Hank Aaron , who died last week at age 86, is being remembered as the home run king of baseball. WKSU's sports commentator Terry Pluto got a glimpse of how challenging Aaron’s life was on the other side of his record-setting career. Pluto reflected on the time he was a writer covering minor league baseball in Savannah, Ga., when Hank Aaron was working for the Atlanta Braves.
A record-setting career and a tough transition
Aaron began his professional career in the Negro Leagues in 1951 and debuted in Major League Baseball at the age of 23. It was on April 8, 1974, that Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record by hitting his 715th career home run. He would finish his career with 755.
Aaron spent 21 seasons with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves in the National League and two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League. After Aaron's last season as a player in 1976, Braves owner Ted Turner made him the team's director of player development. It was around the same time that Pluto began covering minor league baseball in Savannah, Ga.
"Ted Turner wanted Hank to have a meaningful job," Pluto said. And while Pluto said Turner probably meant well, Aaron clearly struggled in the role, especially so soon after ending his whirlwind of a career.
Pluto said he would often call to find out about players and who was moving up in the system. "Sometimes it was pretty clear to me that [Aaron] didn't know a lot of these guys. It would be like taking a top scout or top executive and say, 'Now go out there and hit 715 homers.' He was really out of water," Pluto said.
"He was a walking piece of African American history and that was really his value ... inspiring, listening and teaching instead of trying to figure out who the heck was a good catcher for the Class AA team."
The scars after hitting 715
Pluto said that Aaron constantly faced racist threats, even after his record-setting career.
"What I saw and didn't understand at that point was how scarred he was by that experience," Pluto said.
Pluto noted there's a section at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown displaying "a sampling of all these horrible, racist letters and things he was getting." Aaron was inducted in 1982.
Pluto said during the season that Aaron broke Ruth's record, the FBI had two agents protecting him and looking after his kids in school to prevent them from potentially being kidnapped.
Pluto said Aaron came to Savannah three times to scout players and looked emotionally drained. "This was a small ballpark. He was afraid to be in the stands, whether it was that people wanted autographs or he just felt he could possibly be in danger. It was surreal," he said.
Finding a purpose
Pluto said eventually Aaron found his place. He developed a strong friendship with Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, when Aaron played for the Brewers in the twilight of his career. Selig then went on to become commissioner of Major League Baseball in the early 1990s.
"Selig brought [Aaron] in, and he became a spokesman. He got to be Hank Aaron: good will ambassador for the game and I think he finally got to feel some of the love he probably should have had earlier," he said.
Impact off the field
Aaron returned to the Braves organization, serving as senior vice president until his death, and started a lot of charity work in Atlanta. He established the Chasing the Dream Foundation in 1995 to provide scholarships to disadvantaged children. The foundation has provided financial assistance to more than 755 Dream Chasers in six cities across the country, primarily through Boys and Girls Clubs.
He and his wife also gave several large gifts directly to universities in Atlanta and elsewhere over the years, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, like Morehouse and Clark Atlanta.
"He was a walking piece of African American history and that was really his value ... in inspiring, listening and teaching instead of trying to figure out who the heck was a good catcher for the Class AA team," Pluto said.